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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Are We There Yet?

I’ve been at this project now for three and a half months. The results thus far are ambiguous. On the one hand, my arpeggios feel better than when I began in January. By the end of May, I hope to post a video that shows this improvement. On the other hand, my right hand alternation, the core of what I’ve been working on, is stuck in the mud.

I’m not really sure why this is so. In normal playing position, I can easily tap my fingers on the bridge at 180, four notes per click. Everything works perfectly—the movement is free and easy, and the inactive fingers do exactly what they should. (Inactive fingers are fingers that aren’t sounding a string during a particular movement.) Yet when I alternate on a string, this free and easy movement disappears entirely. Yes, I know that tapping my fingers is very different from alternating on a string. But the question neither I nor anyone else has answered to my satisfaction is this: why are tapping and alternation so utterly different?

There are two answers I can think of. One is that in alternation, the fingers must make a complex movement. If after a stroke, a finger simply releases back to the string, the back of the nail will bump into the string on the way back. To clear the string on the return movement, the finger must lift over the string. (One guitarist likens it to how one’s legs move when pedaling a bicycle, which seems an apt description.) Merely tapping the fingers avoids this more complex movement.

The other possible answer is simply the resistance of the string against the finger. Certainly this is entirely absent when tapping the fingers—you can think of hitting the hard surface as analogous to coming to rest against the adjacent string, but there’s nothing analogous to actually plucking a string during a simple tapping movement.

So both these differences could explain the increased tension I feel when I try right hand alternation, a tension I don’t feel when merely tapping on a hard surface. But still I wonder. Is the difference between tapping and alternating so great that I can easily do one, and the other not at all? I can’t shake the conviction that if I can tap my fingers at 180, then I should be able to gradually work up an easy alternation to a similar speed. It doesn’t make sense to me that, in the same hand, tapping is easily possible yet alternation is completely impossible. There’s a correct feel that’s so far eluded me. I’m determined to find it.

With this in mind, I’ve tweaked my 30 minute alternation practice. Now I begin by tapping i and m on the bridge, with my hand in normal playing position. I do this for a moment to ingrain the light and easy feel. Then I move my hand to the first string and try to maintain this light and easy feel during alternation. This raises a problem. If I try to maintain a light and easy feel while alternating on a string, I must play very lightly with an almost wispy sound. Any attempt to raise the volume also raises my hand tension. The question is whether very light playing is the right way to go. On the one hand, maybe I should start with the light and wispy sound, ingrain the easy feel, then increase the volume gradually from there. On the other hand, maybe an increase in hand tension is integral to good alternation, and by avoiding it, I’m delaying progress. (“On the one hand, on the other hand”—if I add any more hands to my deliberations, I’ll have to buy gloves in bulk.)

Faced with this conundrum, I’m splitting the difference. Sometimes I alternate lightly, other times I alternate more vigorously. In time, I hope to discover which approach yields better results.

Now to answer a couple of questions:

“I noticed that in the Fandango you were flexing a and c in past i and m—is this a conscious strategy?”
I would prefer that a and c stay with m. But I may have to take what I can get.

“I was wondering what is you exact goal? Is it possible that your goal is too vague?”
As I’ve said in a previous post, my goal with i and m alternation is to hit a metronome setting of 180, four notes per click. That’s pretty specific. In fact, I’ll be more specific. I want to be able to play an E major scale with i and m rest stroke across six strings, up and down twice, at 180. Further, I want to play the Carulli Fandango at 100. Finally, I want to be able to execute alternation and arpeggios with good tone, accurately, and reliably.

Seems specific enough. Is it realistic? We’ll see.

——[My next post will be on April 25, 2011.]——


Anonymous said...

That sounds more specific, yes. Before it sounded like the string of 16ths had no specific length, just a vague "play at 180". I believe that this distinction (which I will call "aiming") is quite important. Shall the archer aim wildly?

Anonymous said...

Also, I would say that it would be better to shoot for more a more humble amount of notes, and work up gradually. Just my opinion......

Ben said...

Tapping the guitar lacks the need to compress the string inward before playing, hence the slower speed.